The 200-year-old Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, one of the oldest in the country, is a paradise for bird watchers and ornithologists. On a visit, during the peak migratory season, Isabelle Brotherton Ratcliffe not only sees several birds, most of them for the first time, but also realizes that the vibrant community-led conservation of birds is also a shining example that sustainable conservation initiatives is everybody’s responsibility and perhaps the only way to save many life forms on earth from becoming a mere memory
Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary rightfully deserves its reputation as a place of pilgrimage for Indian ornithologists, but it makes only a discreet impact on its surroundings. Situated 75 kilometers south west of Chennai and approachable only by country roads, there are no garish displays to advertise its presence, or large direction signs, until a few hundred metres before the entrance where a sun bleached wall becomes visible, covered in paintings of birds and their identifications.
We had gone to Vedanthangal at the peak of the migratory season when the numbers of birds nesting there are at their greatest, but there is no clue in the approach to the concentration of birds to be seen. It was not until we reached the sanctuary entrance, a gateway carved into the shape of two trees with birds upon its branches, that the avian theme became more obvious. We walked along a raised pathway, with Bonnet Macaque monkeys playing above our heads and a pair of spectacular centipedes on the ground, which mesmerised me with the efficiency and coordination of their movement.
The sanctuary’s documented history began towards the end of the 18th century when it was known as a place for birds to collect and the people of the village complained that British soldiers were shooting them
However, these were not what we had come to see, and nothing could have prepared me for the jaw dropping sight of the multitude of large white and grey birds – open billed storks- settling in the branches of half submerged trees that we saw from a viewing tower. There was not as much noise as I would have expected from such a crowd, but the movement was constant, some smaller birds such as moorhens paddling in the water, others apparently fishing or foraging, flying back and forth from nests which are as yet without the chicks for which they are being prepared.
There are several different kinds of trees, which provide nesting platforms for these birds, but all are semi submerged which gives an appearance of recent flooding. When I asked about this I learned that many of the trees, such as the Barringtonia acacia, grow naturally in the water and that the water in which they stand is a natural reservoir so the water surrounding them is in fact normal. There is human intervention, however, in the building up of the embankment, known as the bund, and in the construction of a viewing tower and platforms at intervals around the lake. The latter are set out with benches where bird watchers can sit in anticipation of all that their binoculars will show them. There are also regularly spaced water taps set into the bills of bird statues or the jaws of animals – my favourite being a zebra in whose nose a tap could be turned to provide water.
A tradition of community-led conservation
Vedanthangal has a long association with birds, going back two hundred years in documented history and longer than that in village memory. The area known as the Vedanthangal Lake Bird Sanctuary covers 73 acres and is a large reservoir, bordered by a natural mud bank, together with a myriad of smaller lakes and ponds which combine to provide a large expanse of watery nesting sites suitable for water birds.
The sanctuary’s documented history began towards the end of the 18th century when it was known as a place for birds to collect and the people of the village complained that British soldiers were shooting them. In 1798, the British Collector of Chingleput District instituted a ban on bird shooting, thus establishing a precedent for the protection laws which were to follow. In 1858, the embargo was reinforced to preserve the area and protect the birds. Protection measures continued in this century: in1936, the area was denoted a sanctuary and in the 1960s, local politician Venkata Subba Reddy MLA (in office from 1957 to 1967) took up the cause. In 1962, the area was elevated to reserve forest status, and in 1968, Subba Reddy recommended that it should become an official sanctuary and four years later, in 1972, Vedanthangal was inaugurated as a formal wildlife sanctuary.
As one of my interviewees pointed out, among the twelve staff of the sanctuary, there are only four guards, who could not possibility protect all the birds, so it is the people of the village who are their guardians
It has played host to a number of India’s most distinguished ornithologists and naturalists, notably Salim Ali and M. Krishnan respectively. The latter describes a friendly discussion about bird conservation, conducted on the bund, with Salim Ali who had been closely involved with the formalisation of Vedanthangal’s status as a bird sanctuary. It added a frisson of interest to my visit to know that I was standing on the bund, as they had, looking at a view, which is unchanged from the day they enjoyed it together.
This makes Vedanthangal one of the oldest, and longest running, bird sanctuaries in India, which in itself is something special, but what makes it so very remarkable, and so unusual, is the way the surrounding villagers have bonded together to protect the bird colonies. Vedanthangal is known for 26 kinds of water nesting birds (as opposed to tree or ground nesting birds) including some of the largest specimens – storks and pelicans – as well as the many other birds that live on waterborne insects, fish, frogs and snails. There are other sanctuaries, which can boast a wider range of avian visitors – it is said that at Koonthankullam, for example, there are 236 kinds of birds – but I doubt if any other place can boast such loyalty from their migratory visitors, or such community support from their human neighbours.
Well known naturalist M. Krishnan describes a friendly discussion about bird conservation, conducted on the bund, with the famous ornithologist Salim Ali who had been closely involved with the formalisation of Vedanthangal’s status as a bird sanctuary
A unique symbiosis between people and birds
There are approximately 2,000 people in the rural communities in the Vedanthangal area and it is their presence and their attitude to the birds around them that has made it such an extraordinary example of the symbiotic relationship that is possible when humans work with nature. Decisions affecting the people in the village are taken in communal panchayats (village council meetings). For hundreds of years, they have protected the birds and now, this is bringing them to the point of putting their own lives second. It is known that birds do not like bright light and loud noise, so the people in the area surrounding the sanctuary have a self-imposed moratorium on lamps at night and agreements to keep noise to a low level. This is particularly obvious during Diwali when the rest of India is setting off as many fireworks as possible; whereas here there are only very small and limited firecrackers. Also, the level of the water in the reservoir is kept high so that the birds can nest in it safely, although this may mean that the people in the surrounding areas reduce their own usage. As one of the people we spoke to said, “If there is no water, there are no birds.” It is a simple dictum but not one that everyone would find easy to keep in mind when it also involves a ban on fishing in the lake or boating on it.
In their turn, the birds unwittingly help the villagers; firstly by eating insects, which means there is no need to use insecticides on the local crops. On the day we visited, there were squadrons of dragonflies hovering around us and I wondered if they were aware of how close they may have been to consumption by any one of the 45,000 hungry birds not far away.
Birds, an agricultural boon
The local crop is rice, which has a three-month cycle in waterlogged fields. The seeds are planted and harvested four times a year. Rice needs constant irrigation and this is where the contribution of the birds is easy to measure. Both statistics and village lore confirm that there is always a higher crop yield of rice from fields, which have been watered from the lake. It has now been explained that this is a result of the droppings the birds deposit in the water turning to guano, which raises the nitrogen level in the water thus making it a highly efficient fertiliser. Water is channelled from the reservoir in an age-old custom of shared irrigation so that water flows are diverted on a daily basis to produce a rotation pattern of irrigation and ensure equal advantage to all the farmers in the affected area. Birds can also be important in the dispersal of seeds – many of which need water to germinate – by eating them and then depositing them in a wider area.
Perhaps it is now time to turn attention to the sanctuary and to make it more widely known, outside the birding community, with teaching amenities and tours for newcomers like me, who before coming here had paid so little attention to birds and their lives, can now learn just how intriguing birds in their natural habitat can be
Stringent conservation laws
Maintaining this harmonious life style comes at a price. Literally. There is now a law to prevent any building or development (and its attendant noise and disturbance) within a 5-kilometre radius of the sanctuary. This means that the value of the land in this designated area is lower than it would otherwise be, and will remain so. There is a Forest Department embargo on people from outside the area buying any land within the 5 km area. This means that land can only by bought and sold amongst the people in the villages but when I asked about difficulties in negotiating prices in a limited market, E. Vedachalam, a local resident and politician, told us that there was a fixed price, accepted by the people, and there was generally no difficulty in effecting sales at this price.
The locals themselves are aware that their attention to the needs of the birds encapsulates them in an almost artificially old fashioned lifestyle and certainly they would welcome more modern amenities, most of all a local medical centre. However, the consensus appears to be that such improvements would be for short term gain at the cost of losing something more valuable – the presence of the birds, and a common trust which has built up over the centuries and could be lost in a matter of months.
One man’s passion for birds
The sanctuary is open from 9.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. from November to June and has twelve employees. We met C. Sampath (25) who has been working there for two years as a monitor of the bird colonies, looking for irregularities in the numbers of any particular species, and as a guide. He was a quiet and serious seeming young man but spoke easily of his love of birds and the pleasure he takes in his job. His first inspiration came from reading the books of the legendary ornithologist Salim Ali, and from this his interest in birds developed through working with senior ornithologists whom he credits for giving him a ‘real time interest’ rather than just the knowledge garnered from books.
Whatever time of day the birds shake themselves awake. Apparently 8.30 p.m. is the universal nesting time after which there is a “pin drop silence”
He is clearly a man in the right job and talked about some of the responsibilities which go with it. These can include the practical matters of maintaining safety and cleanliness at the sanctuary, and identifying and talking about the birds to visitors. However, it can also have its gentler side and Sampath described how he had taken care of a painted stork chick, which had fallen out of its nest into the water. Sampath and his colleagues feed these helpless nestlings on fish until they are strong enough to fish for themselves. In answer to my question he assured us that birds do recognise humans and that those which have been rescued in this way return to their human helpers even after their migratory absences. In these cases, the sanctuary takes the opportunity to ring the birds with an identification tag so they can confirm whether it is the same birds coming back every year.
In the summer months, from July to October when the birds are in their colder homelands, the sanctuary is closed and humans give a hand to nature by improving the nest sites for the birds. In the hot months the reservoir eventually runs dry thus making the normally submerged ground and trees both visible and accessible. The sanctuary staff can clear dead trees and plant new ones. Sampath emphasises that this is a natural area – if it were artificially created it would not work, he says – and it seems that there are some ways in which humans can help nature along.
As one of the people we spoke to said, “If there is no water, there are no birds.” It is a simple dictum but not one that everyone would find easy to keep in mind when it also involves a ban on fishing in the lake or boating on it
Such a long avian journey
Birds come to Vedanthangal because they know it is safe and the pattern of their lives calls for them to leave their countries of origin, which may be as far away as Siberia, Canada, Australia, and Europe to escape the cold winters. As they remain in the northern hemisphere, it is in fact winter, but so much warmer that it allows them to build nests, lay eggs and incubate them without the hazards of cold temperatures and shortages of food. For most of the birds at Vedanthangal, their eggs hatch in January and their chicks need feeding until March. By June and July, the young have become strong enough to accompany their parents on the long flights back and, as one of the experts to whom we spoke pointed out, if 45,000 to 50,000 birds arrive in the sanctuary each year, it will be more than double the number who return. In addition to this, there are also birds nesting in the area that may fly to Vedanthangal daily in search of the security and rich fodder they will find here.
Only the fittest survive
The dangers to which birds may be subject come from both natural and human predators. Natural predators are limited as the water isolates the birds’ nests from carnivorous mammals, and there are no bird predators to swoop down on nests and carry off chicks. The human threat has historically been from members of the Narikuravar tribe who are nomadic hunters and who view the birds as food. Shooting of birds is no longer a problem as this has been banned for over two hundred years and there is now legislation to outlaw the hunting activities of the Narikuravar as well.
I asked about another form of bird hunting – collectors of eggs who in some countries have been known to pay enormous amounts to add rare eggs to their collections. Apparently this is not a major threat, although it too is guarded by protective legislation with consequences of both prison sentences and monetary fines. As one of my interviewees pointed out, amongst the twelve staff of the sanctuary there are only four guards, who could not possibility protect all the birds, so it is the people of the village who are their guardians. I imagine the birds sleep safely, secure in the knowledge that they have such a vigilant band of defenders.
In a frivolous afterthought, I asked E. Vedachallam what was his favourite bird but the question caused him no difficulty. “All birds are my children,” he said, but went on to describe the pleasure of hearing the song of the grey billed heron early in the morning. The heron and the open billed storks are the earliest risers at 4.00 a.m. and lead the morning chorus as other birds wake in their turn. Whatever time of day the birds shake themselves awake. Apparently 8.30 p.m. is the universal nesting time after which there is a “pin drop silence.” Clearly the habits of all the birds, individually and as a group, are well known to all who care about them and whose own lives may be attuned to those of the birds they prize so highly.
“There was not as much noise as I would have expected from such a crowd, but the movement was constant, some smaller birds such as moorhens paddling in the water, others apparently fishing or foraging, flying back and forth from nests which are as yet without the chicks for which they are being prepared”
The way forward
Vedanthangal is a well-known bird watching destination and currently has approximately 600 visitors from Monday to Friday and 2,000 over the weekends. The sanctuary aims to be self-supporting, but is in fact also funded by the Government of Tamil Nadu through the central Ministry of Environment and Forests. In 1967, a rest house was built for official visitors to the area and there is now talk of building a lodge for tourists (at the 5 km boundary line to prevent the associated noise and lights causing disturbance to the birds). It seems to me, however, that more could be done in the short term, which would not in any way violate either the people of the village, the birds, or the relationship between the two.
“All birds are my children,” he said, but went on to describe the pleasure of hearing the song of the grey billed heron early in the morning
A first measure could be the provision of guides, pamphlets, or other printed material for visitors to study during their visit, perhaps outlining the history of the site, emphasising its rarity, and explaining something about the lives of the birds it nurtures. In all my conversations with those whose lives are touched by this extraordinary place I heard much about the people of the village, whose altruistic love of these birds has done so much to help them, and of the birds themselves. Perhaps it is now time to turn attention to the sanctuary and to make it more widely known, outside the birding community, with teaching amenities and tours for newcomers like me, who before coming here had paid so little attention to birds and their lives, can now learn just how intriguing birds in their natural habitat can be.